Aug 7, 2023
Growth Strategies
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 min read

Creative is your new targeting lever on paid social

Gone are the days of 20 Meta campaigns testing various demographic filters, interest layers and lookalike audiences. Paid social channels’ algorithms armed with their first-party data have become so strong that they have essentially made targeting filters irrelevant. 

Welcome to the new age of contextual targeting through your creative assets. This is an effective strategy of crafting intelligent creative that provides consumers with a direct indication that they’re the target audience. It may sound obvious, but a college student advertising for a freight software as a service (SaaS) product would make no sense. If we then combined this idea with filming their advertisement on a college campus, the confusion would only grow.

To help you learn how to properly leverage contextual creative targeting, I will first outline a framework you can use, which also provides examples of how I performed these tasks when I was with the growth team at Coinbase. 

Contextual targeting framework

Many advertisers are already subconsciously performing contextual advertising when they speak directly to their target audience. Whether you fall into that bucket or are totally new to contextual targeting, I have created a simple framework abbreviated TMA: 

  • Targeting: Identify your intended target audience.
  • Messaging: Create specific copy.
  • Asset: Design graphical asset.

Utilizing this framework will lead you to design creative that will replace the use of ageing targeting layers. Next, I will show you how to break down each piece of the framework in more detail. 

Example of framework in action


Unless you’re an Uber with a very wide total addressable market (TAM) and the budget to target whole countries, you’re going to need to define your target audience. Let’s take Squarespace, a website builder, as an example with the following hypothetical audiences: 

  • Solopreneurs. 
  • Small business owners.
  • Enterprises.

The audiences above could be further segmented, for example: solopreneur construction services. However, for simplicity’s sake we’ll keep it to these three primary categories. 


If Squarespace is selling to solopreneurs, the messaging used will be widely different in comparison to an enterprise segment. In years past, it would have been a sound strategy to use general messaging with targeting layers that specified varying business types. Today, we instead want to use the power of messaging layers instead. 

Below are examples of how messaging will vary between target audiences at Squarespace:

Targeting: Solopreneurs

Messaging: Create your first website in 5 minutes.  

Targeting: Small business owners 

Messaging: Website collab with your team made easy.

Since solopreneurs may not have a website yet, the messaging is focused on creating their first website. Conversely, the messaging for small business owners should highlight those features likely to be most appealing to them, such as easy team collaboration. 


Time to put this all together with an image or video. For solopreneurs, we could use an image of them working from their home, whereas for small business owners we can use an image of them at their storefront. 

Sample contextual ads for Squarespace. Images courtesy of Jonathan Martinez.

One important disclaimer I must issue is that I am not a graphic designer by trade and put together the above creative simply for demonstrational purposes. My larger point here is to show that distinguishing between who we’re selling to in the messaging and the used asset will reduce the amount of paid social users clicking for items that don’t apply to them. However, if the creative does apply to users, they will follow up by clicking and provide the paid social channels with the correct signals of who to continue serving these ads to. 

Think of Google ads and their infamous Quality Score mechanism, which ranks an advertiser’s ads by their expected clickthrough rate, ad relevance and landing page experience. The better the ad copy is for each specific keyword will increase the position of ad placement while also decreasing cost per click. Similarly, Meta has an advanced Quality Ranking system which impacts ad delivery and costs. If you spend the time crafting ads that leverage the contextual targeting framework, your Quality Ranking and signal will measurably improve.

Contextual targeting at Coinbase

At Coinbase, our paid acquisition targeting was largely defined by how well-versed consumers were with cryptocurrency. Among our various segments, “Beginners” were those that had never traded cryptocurrency, whereas “Forward” were those that understood the various intricacies of cryptocurrency. This became a foundational element to all our creative production, regardless of the paid social channel we were advertising on. 

Below is an example of the type of messaging we employed for these targeting segments: 

Beginners: $5 free bitcoin to start trading cryptocurrency.

Forward: X feature to stake your cryptocurrency.

Our primary focus with beginners was to entice them to complete their first trade, which was subsequently highlighted in our messaging. Our forward segment cared more about advanced trading features, so our messaging here leaned towards educating them about those. In addition, the video assets we produced were entertaining and focused on security to alleviate the concerns of those beginners who were skeptical about getting their feet wet in the world of cryptocurrency. Meanwhile, the assets for our forward segment included casting talent that was highly technical and could speak in detail about the space. 

Using leading questions and keywords

In a B2B startup I recently co-founded, my team and I made the important decision to stop serving businesses generating less than certain monthly revenue amounts. This decision was the result of us having to sift through a large number of leads that did not meet this new criterion. As you may have already guessed, the problem was that our creative messaging was too general. Using the contextual targeting framework, I began to experiment with more direct leading questions, such as the following: Is your business making more than $10k/month? This immediately eliminated much of the chaff and we started bringing in more of the right kind of traffic. 

While advising for a health technology startup, Health Karma, most of our paid social testing was focused on finding the perfect TMA combo, not on the targeting levers. After exhaustive testing, we found efficient pockets of performance by using certain keywords in our messaging that resonated strongly with our target audience. Instead of hiding these keywords in the copy, we added emphasis by bolding them to ensure we were bringing the right users to the platform.

Whether you’re using leading questions or emphasizing specific keywords, make sure to be blunt in your marketing to avoid confusion from users! 

While many startups will continue to naturally gravitate towards the demographic targeting levers available on paid social channels, contextual targeting with creative will remain far more beneficial with improved ad quality and performance metrics. 

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